Every Tuesday morning, volunteer Reed Taillard has a new maintenance task for the day.
Today, there’s a willow hedge that needs pruning. Nearby, an invasive Himalayan blackberry bush desperately needs a trim.
Though Taillard’s work is crucial to keeping the habitat healthy at Blue Lake Regional Park, animals at the Oregon Zoo are counting on Taillard, too.
The unwanted piles of plant debris that Taillard removes have become the new favorite toys and snacks of the zoo’s elephants and bears.
Through a collaboration that started in spring 2016, volunteers collect the leaves, twigs and vegetation left over from pruning and other grounds maintenance done at Metro parks, natural areas and cemeteries. The debris is delivered to the Oregon Zoo, where animals consume the vegetation, known as browse.
For many zoo animals, browse plays a key role in maintaining a naturally healthy diet.
“It supplements not only their nutritional intake, but the enrichment is very important,” said Dani Ferguson, a horticulturalist at the zoo. “Browse could be scattered around an exhibit to encourage animals to seek it out. Black bears will pick it up, play with it, play with each other, or throw it up in the air.”
Senior elephant keeper Bob Lee says that no zoo animals benefit from the browse as much as the elephants. When consumed, the material helps wear down elephant teeth, which is useful in avoiding surgical procedures, such as extraction. The non-native strawberry trees and invasive blackberries are among elephant favorites.
“Because of their size, elephants are able to take a whole lot more browse than the other animals,” Lee said. “These guys eat over 100 pounds of food every day and they require great diversity, so this works out really well for them.”
The innovative partnership began when parks staff inquired about ways to deliver the material to zoo animals, instead of hauling it or paying someone to take it away.
Throughout the last few months, volunteers have worked with staff to trim, cut and prune plants across Metro parks, natural areas and cemeteries. The same day, material is loaded onto trucks and sent to the zoo.
Volunteers are a crucial part to getting the job done. A class from the Multnomah Education Service District routinely volunteers. The 10 students range in age from 16 to 24 and are part of a transition class to learn work skills.
Taillard, who has been volunteering with the horticulture team for about two years, says she volunteers as a way of giving back to the community.
“I love the zoo, being outside, working with Dani and the horticulture crew,” Taillard said. “It’s a great place to volunteer, give back and feel like you’re doing the right thing.”
Since its inception, the program has proved advantageous to both Metro and zoo staff by reducing waste and providing natural material to animals.
“It’s been really helpful for us to have another source of plants to use for the animals,” Taillard said. “It’s been really bene cial for all parties involved.”
The process doesn’t end there. In return, park staff hauls away “zoodoo,” animal waste that has been composted. The compost can be used at parks to suppress weeds, retain moisture in the soil and naturally fertilize the ground.
“It’s building a relationship around who’s available, what’s available,” said Lupine DeSnyder, a volunteer coordinator for Metro. “It’s really just talking to each other a lot more so we’re able to make the cycle work better for both parties.”